US May Use Military To Confront China In South China Sea Islands Dispute

Just days after Japanese PM Shinzo Abe leaves Washington (having stepped up his nation's military assertiveness), The Wall Street Journal reports that the US Secretary of Defense has asked staff for military options in the South China Sea (as we have detailed China's land reclamation efforts):


Having ironically commented on China's "bullying," it appears Nobel-Peace-Prize winner President Obama is preparing for an even bigger objective, amid China's rising threat to USD dominance (with Yuan liberalization and AIIB success).


As The Wall Street Journal reports, the U.S. military is considering using aircraft and Navy ships to directly contest Chinese territorial claims to a chain of rapidly expanding artificial islands, U.S. officials said, in a move that would raise the stakes in a regional showdown over who controls disputed waters in the South China Sea.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter has asked his staff to look at options that include flying Navy surveillance aircraft over the islands and sending U.S. naval ships to well within 12 nautical miles of reefs that have been built up and claimed by the Chinese in an area known as the Spratly Islands.


Such moves, if approved by the White House, would send a message to Beijing that the U.S. won’t accede to Chinese territorial claims to the man-made islands in what the U.S. considers to be international waters and airspace.

The proposal under consideration would be to send Navy ships and aircraft to within 12 nautical miles of only those built-up sites that the U.S. doesn’t legally consider to be islands, officials say.

Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, reclaimed features aren’t entitled to territorial waters if the original features are not islands recognized under the agreement, U.S. officials say. Under that interpretation, the U.S. believes it doesn’t need to honor the 12-mile zone around the built-up reefs that weren’t considered to be islands before construction there began.


Several U.S. allies in the region have been privately urging the White House to do more to challenge Chinese behavior, warning Washington that U.S. inaction in the South China Sea risked inadvertently reinforcing Beijing’s territorial claims, U.S. officials said. Some allies in the region have, in contrast, expressed concern to Washington that a change in the U.S.’s approach could inadvertently draw them into a conflict.


“It’s important that everyone in the region have a clear understanding of exactly what China is doing,” a U.S. official said. “We’ve got to get eyes on.” The U.S. has been using satellites to monitor building at the islands.


In recent months, the White House has sought to increase pressure on Beijing to halt construction on the islands through diplomatic channels, as well as by calling out the Chinese publicly in recent press briefings and government reports.

And it appears the US military has been testing the waters so to speak...

U.S. military aircraft have repeatedly approached the 12-nautical-mile zone declared by China around the built up reefs. But to avoid an escalation, the planes haven’t penetrate the zone. A senior military official said the flights “have kept a distance from the islands and remained near the 12-mile mark.”


U.S. planes have flown close to the islands where the building has been taking place, prompting Chinese military officers to radio the approaching U.S. aircraft to notify the pilots that they are nearing Chinese sovereign territory. In response, U.S. pilots have told the Chinese that they are flying through international airspace.


The USS Fort Worth, a combat ship, has been operating in recent days in waters near the Spratlys. “We’re just not going within the 12 miles—yet,” a senior U.S. official said.

Finally, it is worth noting that...

The military proposals haven’t been formally presented to the White House, which would have to sign off on any change in the U.S. posture. The White House declined to comment on the deliberations.


Officials said the issue is a complicated one because at least some of the areas where the Chinese have been doing construction are, in eyes of the U.S. government, legitimate islands, which would be entitled to a 12-nautical-mile zone.

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As a reminder, China has been busy...

Now, a series of satellite images have confirmed the construction of a 10,000 foot runway on the reef, which would appear to suggest that China may be planning on landing military aircraft such as fighter jets on the reclaimed islands. Here, in glorious HD, are the visuals accompanied by descriptions via the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative:


Satellite photography has identified three cement plants operating on the island.


China has already constructed in excess of 60 semi-permanent or permanent buildings.


At least 20 structures are visible on the southern side of the island (ZH: including a helipad).


China is building an airstrip on the island. The airstrip is likely large enough to land nearly any Chinese aircraft.


Images taken on April 11 show the runway more than one-third complete.


Beijing is also installing port facilities which may be capable of docking military tankers.

Full interactive report available here from the AMTI


Here’s more color from NY Times on what this may mean from a military and geopolitical perspective:


The runway, which is expected to be about 10,000 feet long — enough to accommodate fighter jets and surveillance aircraft — is a game changer in the competition between the United States and China in the South China Sea, said Peter Dutton, professor of strategic studies at the Naval War College in Rhode Island.


“This is a major strategic event,” Mr. Dutton said. “In order to have sea control, you need to have air control…”


In time, Mr. Dutton said, China is likely to install radar and missiles that could intimidate countries like the Philippines, an American ally, and Vietnam, which also have claims to the Spratlys, as they resupply modest military garrisons in the area.


More broadly, he said, China’s ability to use Fiery Cross Reef as a landing strip for fighter and surveillance aircraft will vastly expand its zone of competition with the United States in the South China Sea…


“We absolutely think it is for military aircraft, but of course an airstrip is an airstrip — anything can land on it if it’s long enough,” said James Hardy, Asia-Pacific editor for Jane’s Defense Weekly...


“The main question is, what else would land there?” he said. “Unless they are planning to turn these into resorts — which seems unlikely, not least given the statement from the Foreign Ministry last week — then military aircraft are the only things that would need to land there.”

And a bit more from Reuters


Senator John McCain, chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, called the Chinese moves "aggressive" and said they showed the need for the Obama administration to act on plans to move more military resources into the economically important Asian region and boost cooperation with Asian countries worried by China.


McCain referred to a U.S. intelligence assessment from February that China's military modernization was designed to counteract U.S. strength and said Washington had a lot of work ahead to maintain its military advantage in the Asia-Pacific.


"When any nation fills in 600 acres of land and builds runways and most likely is putting in other kinds of military capabilities in what is international waters, it is clearly a threat to where the world's economy is going, has gone, and will remain for the foreseeable future," he told a public briefing in Congress.


A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said the scale of China’s land reclamation and construction was fueling concerns within the region that China intends to militarize its outposts and stressed the importance of freedom of navigation.


"The United States has a strong interest in preservation of peace and security in the SouthChina Sea. We do not believe that large-scale land reclamation with the intent to militarize outposts on disputed land features is consistent with the region’s desire for peace and stability."

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This comes at an interesting time for relations between Beijing and Washington. China’s recent move to evacuate foreign nationals from the embattled Yemeni port city of Aden marked the first time the rising superpower has participated in an international rescue effort. During the same week, state television indicated the country would begin its first patrol by nuclear submarine later this year.

Meanwhile, the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank marks a coup in the post-war economic era, as the multilateral institution will seek to plug holes left by the US-dominated IMF and the Japan-influenced ADB, while simultaneously positioning the yuan to play a more prominent role in what is quickly becoming a new economic world order characterized by the ascendancy of the renminbi and the decline of traditional systems that have supported dollar hegemony such as petrocurrency mercantilism. While it’s unclear exactly how ambitious Beijing hopes to be in terms of turning the Spratlys into a military outpost, China’s bold development efforts underscore the degree to which the country isn’t timid when it comes to advancing its interests in the face of Western admonition.